Tennessee has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the world, and as I write this, our per-capita infection rates and cases are still growing. The Tennessee Department of Health continues to report staggering numbers, and in the last two weeks of August, the number of active cases increased by 61 percent.
On Sept. 1, the Tennessee Department of Health released data showing that more people in Tennessee were hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other point. That day, hospitals across the state were housing 3,338 COVID patients, past the previous peak of 3,314 in January. These numbers include 73 pediatric patients, with 18 of those in ICUs and seven on ventilators.
As reported by WZTV, over the course of two weeks in August, the total of school-age children in Tennessee who tested positive for COVID-19 was north of 20,000. By Sept. 1, that number had jumped to more than 28,000. Hospitals are being forced to cancel non-urgent procedures that require overnight stays. If the spike continues, hospitals will begin prioritizing care and triaging. In the Memphis area, for instance, hospitals have already sent a letter warning that they “may be unable to provide timely care to everyone and will have to make choices about delivering care to patients based on their probability of survival.” This is beyond sad — it’s unfathomable.
Amid the breathtaking number of COVID cases across the state, Gov. Bill Lee seems to channel Marie Antoinette. When school districts mandated masks, he issued an executive order that said any parent could opt their child out of the mandate, essentially nullifying the efforts to protect schoolchildren and their teachers. Thousands of health care workers across Tennessee sent a letter asking the governor to rethink his position on school mask mandates, to follow the science. Those who signed the letter noted that masks, while not perfect, “absolutely work to decrease viral spread, and they do not cause harm.”
The governor was not moved by the plea.
During a press conference on Sept. 2, Lee continued to defend the state’s position, sending mixed messages as usual. School districts aren’t allowed to switch back to remote learning — well, some individual schools may be if they are granted a waiver. Still, some schools have had no choice but to close due to too many COVID-19 cases or too many students or staff in quarantine. Lee is blind to the simple fact that masks can make a difference.
We have the tools to fight this pandemic, but misinformation is deterring people from getting vaccinated. Pandering to a political base does not help anyone make an informed choice. To that end, Lee’s decision to let parents opt their children out of mask requirements is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which notes that the rule may “discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.” The governor previously received a letter from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona saying the mask exemption order could violate federal law. In a statement that went out to five states, including Tennessee, Cardona says it is “unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve.”
When seat-belt requirements first passed, some didn’t like them — but the majority of us adhere to them now. I wear a seatbelt not only because it’s law, but also because it keeps me safe. When my children first started driving, I was happy to know they had to “buckle up for safety” and that there would be at least some assurance they could survive an accident. So why are we so afraid of our children wearing masks? Don’t we want them “covered up for safety” in hopes they can survive this pandemic?
We worked very hard to be Music City, and embraced the “It City” designation after that. Tourists come here to safely have fun and experience our city. Businesses come here because young, creative, vibrant people want to live, work and play here. But will this desire last? People are dying from COVID-19 while our governor stands idly by. His actions, and his lack of action, have prompted a federal investigation. If this keeps up, who will want to come here?
Bill Freeman is the owner of FW Publishing, the publishing company that produces the Nashville Scene, Nfocus, the Nashville Post and Home Page Media Group in Williamson County.